Using Clubhouse for a Good Cause

By Joel Teh

April 2022 FEATURE
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John interacts with participants across Google Meet and Clubhouse for episodes of the Penang Hokkien Podcast.
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REMEMBER THE INVITE-ONLY social audio app, Clubhouse? It was the virtual place to be at the height of Covid in 2020, hosting a dizzying array of conversations, from business and personal development, to fandom and literature, in a chatroom with like-minded individuals.

In fact, there are those too who now use it for social activism, like John Ong and Arissa Jemaima Ikram.

Roots Not Easily Forgotten

I spoke to John, who from his base in the U.S., waved aside the notion that his many years abroad have made tenuous his deep-rooted connection to Penang. It instead had the opposite effect, inspiring him to start the Penang Hokkien Podcast. “I wanted to gather together Hokkien speakers to converse about everyday topics, including those that are just downright bizarre.” When prompted for examples, John says with a laugh, “You know, those conversations among close friends about toilet paper, odours and smells, and the likes.” The idea, he adds, was to promote the sociolinguistics of the Hokkien language to an interested audience.

The Penang Hokkien Podcast is accessible on its official website, penanghokkien.com, and on Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Stitcher and more. But John has recently experimented with a different approach, after his listeners pointed out the similarity of the two mediums, podcast and Clubhouse. His episodes now feature casual conversations with participants drawn from Google Meet and Clubhouse.

Years of podcasting have made John especially adept in engaging with participants beyond just Malaysians. There are many who tune in from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, the Netherlands and the Philippines, prompting John to create Global Hokkien Speakers on Clubhouse. In one episode, they had fun coming up with Hokkien terminologies to describe the features found on the app; thua cheng was for “pull-to-refresh”, tsua pui kee for “backchat”, siam sai hong for “leave quietly”, and kap tsu for Clubhouse itself.

John also uses the platform to share his solidarity with the queer community, being someone who identifies as one himself (read his coming-out story in Penang Monthly, October 2018). “Societal awareness has gotten much better, but there is still a lack of representation of queer Asians due to shame for having their families find out about their sexual identities and gender preferences.”

I asked if John himself had encountered hate speech on the platform. “I have not, but I’m determined to preserve a safe space for the marginalised on Clubhouse, rather than challenging opinions of dissenters,” he says. For those interested, follow John on Clubhouse (@johnong) to learn more about his social movement activities.

Asking the Big Tough Questions

Growing up in a very involved multi-racial community in the U.K. impressed on Arissa Jemaima Ikram the empowering value of diversity. Now 25 years old, Arissa devotes herself to Women For Refugees (WFR), an NGO she co-founded in 2020, to equip refugee women with literacy and technical surviving skills, and Doctors on Ground (DnG), a medical NGO she started just last year to provide development and sustainable healthcare access to minority groups in Malaysia; all while pursuing an International Relations degree at Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin.

Doctors on Ground is a medical NGO that provides development and sustainable healthcare access to minority groups in Malaysia.

“Both DnG and WFR were born in an age of distress,” says Arissa. “Seeing how dependent everyone has become on digital media during Covid times, we began reporting more news and data about the refugee crisis on social media to start and normalise these discussions that often are difficult to have in in-person conversation with friends.” 

Much of Arissa’s activism is done on the virtual platform, from publishing blog articles on medical findings and humanitarian efforts, to live-streaming discussions with fellow global activists on Clubhouse. The age demography of her listeners ranges between 18 and 35-year-olds. “The combination of skills, talent and general curiosity possessed by these young adults is what allows organisations like DnG and WFR to start healthy conversations and to push for social change to happen sooner rather than later.”

But disagreements in the chatrooms are inevitable, she says, especially on topics deemed controversial and sensitive. “The refugee crisis is tied to patriotism and nationalism. In Malaysia, this is also bound up with race and religion. Civility in chatrooms can quickly dissipate if a speaker is not respectful of differing viewpoints. Very often, the main objective of Clubhouse discussions is to manage expectations by delivering solid facts, and to try to steer clear of politics.” For those interested, follow Arissa on Clubhouse (@arissajemaima) to find out more about her work in tackling the refugee crisis.

Arissa uses social media to promote the empowering value of diversity.

Joel Teh

is a creative writer, singer and activist. He is fascinated by memes, books, folklore music and food.


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